THE PROSPEROUS 1950S

Americans were ready for some grandfatherly reassurance. The Depression and World War II had been a strain, and the Communists, Korea, and the Cold War didn't give anybody much of a chance to relax. Electing Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower, a balding leading general from World War II with a broad smile, as president in 1952 was a relief.

Real income grew at a rapid rate in the 1950s and beyond. Americans — only 5 percent of the world's population — controlled almost 40 percent of the world's wealth. Money was the biggest story in the history of the United States since World War II.

Not all Americans profited equally from the affluence of their country, and the nation experienced both recession and inflation, but overall the economic course was up for most of the people most of the time.

The seeds of future trouble were contained in some aspects of American affluence. Defense spending stayed high, fully 10 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP, the value of goods and services) during the 1950s. President Eisenhower warned about the bad influence of the military-industrial complex on U.S. society .

Doubling the middle class

Cars, houses, and too many stomachs got bigger. The proportion of the population in the middle class doubled from the Roaring '20s; by the end of the 1950s, about two-thirds of Americans were comfortably middle class. Prosperity gave people the space to improve education, civil rights, and medical care. It also gave the country the income necessary to outspend the Soviet Union in the arms race and Cold War.

By 1960, one out of four homes in America was less than 10 years old. People could afford new homes because their jobs were better — more than likely white collar or sales. The first 707 jet passenger planes launched the travel revolution; before the 1950s, most people had never been on a plane.

Television takes over American households

The 1950s saw the rapid growth of television and fast food. Many now look down on both, but they provided a rich option of experience and convenience that people wanted. Only 3 million people in the country had televisions in 1950; by the end of the decade, they were in nearly every home. In the 1950s, TVs got only three channels; people had to choose from one of the three shows broadcast by the major networks. Originally, television was only black and white on tiny screens — color television was a big deal when it came out in the mid-'50s — and a 21-inch picture tube was considered large.

Rocking in the U.S.A.

Rock-and-roll changed music and culture starting in 1954. Elvis Presley may not have had the first rock record, but he was there at the beginning with Little Richard, Ike Turner, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Rock-and-roll spread like wildfire, bridging the gap between black rhythm and white melody. The open sexuality didn't hurt, either; rock was in the sexy company of Marilyn Monroe, Playboy magazine, and the Kinsey report, which detailed how normal lust could be. Victorian times were gone forever.

Examining alienation and conformity in literature

Literature was actually more dramatic and upbeat in the happy 1950s than in the roaring 1920s. Early-decade social critics like David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte in The Organization Man, and Sloan Wilson in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit saw the future in terms of alienation and conformity. Later, the 1960s would show them how wrong they could be.

Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck turned out career-capping work and won well-deserved Nobel prizes. Playwrights Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) wrote searing drama. J.D. Salinger captured adolescent angst and its answer forever in Catcher in the Rye. Rebellious individualism was personified by actors James Dean and Marlon Brando and by Beat writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg.

People like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), and Philip Roth (Goodbye, Columbus) wrote wittily and meaningfully at the same time. Betty Friedan introduced women's issues in The Feminine Mystique. Television wasn't killing off culture, at least not yet.

Example

Question: What did social critics like David Riesman warn was a coming social problem?

Answer: Social critics in the 1950s often warned about conformity and alienation from community.

 
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